The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred. Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will. Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed? What is the true purpose of the Styles section? What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away? Well, I’ll tell you why. The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous. These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section. The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century: How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all? These sections help us make sense of it. Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself. They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.
But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give? Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday. I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.
We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latest. Randy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions. His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though. If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.
I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.” That’s a nice analogy, because think about it. Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s. They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators. If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping! Thus bringing about an end to racism. Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work. Why am I comparing these two things, again?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue. As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.
This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements. Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.” Cohen says they don’t have to:
Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)
Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists. It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel. Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist! I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids! I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience). Don’t Tread on Me! Live free or die tryin’! You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands! I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!
Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.
Up next, “Out and About: Cruising the Caribbean.” This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.” “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites…. For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”
Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.
“TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?” Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me? That’s a very very… intimate topic! A penetrating question, if you will! I’ll take the second one.
Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.
Social Q’s. Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.” He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?” Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway. Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.” Yes. There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students. You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride! Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask. Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention. Let me know how this goes.
As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.” Nipple “line”? It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle! I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman. “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.” Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute? Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes. Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes. Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though. “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots! Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”
“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.” “Safe”? From what, nipple-line frostbite? Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing. No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.
Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you. Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!
“What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler. “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’ Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”
Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle. Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.
“MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins. “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room. [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.] And you’d be right.” Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about? Oh, never mind.
Carr is in a moral panic about this show. To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.” Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss. Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right? LOL! That guy is responsible for so many cold sores. Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity. He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.
“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.” Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert! The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978. Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.
“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.” Or… they could just use condoms? I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.
Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.
“On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures. “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe. The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”
Moral: You’re not standing right. Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.
Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger. This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them. It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live. Yikes! But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay. The Styles section will never die.